Wednesday 12 December 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Time for FAI to offer Kenny biggest job in Irish football'

Claims League of Ireland achievements don't translate to international stage are ill-founded

Stephen Kenny
Stephen Kenny
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Stephen Kenny should be the next Ireland manager. Dundalk's FAI cup final win over Cork City makes it four league titles, two cups and two doubles in five seasons for the Lilywhites. There are no more peaks for Kenny to scale in the domestic game. It's time for the FAI to be brave and offer him the biggest job in Irish football.

The objections to such a move are well rehearsed. It's said Kenny's lack of experience in England would make it hard for him to command player respect. But the players don't exactly seem to be brimming with belief in Martin O'Neill's vision of the game right now. They're hardly in a position to be getting snotty about someone else's qualifications.

Stephen Kenny with his assistant Vinny Perth. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Stephen Kenny with his assistant Vinny Perth. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

After all, Kenny has won games in European club competition, something few of our international footballers have done. Dundalk's European run two seasons ago remains a marvel of Irish sport. It wasn't just the wins over BATE Borisov and Maccabi Tel Aviv, it was the fact that Dundalk were competitive all the way through.

Their four defeats in Europa League Group D were all by a single goal. Had the FAI not subjected them to an insane schedule Kenny's team could have reached the knock-out stages. Going so close with such limited resources showed the Dundalk manager's ability to excel on a bigger stage.

So did his sole cross channel foray when he took a cash starved Dunfermline Athletic to the 2007 Scottish Cup final. They lost to a goal six minutes from time by a Celtic squad containing twelve internationals. Kenny has developed significantly as a manager since then.

Claims that League of Ireland achievements don't translate to the international stage are ill-founded. Northern Ireland appointed Michael O'Neill on the basis of his record at Shamrock Rovers which was similar to Kenny's but not quite as impressive. Rovers looked utterly out of their depth after reaching the Europa League group stages.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, with assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, right, with assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile

Yet Northern Ireland believed in O'Neill and have been richly rewarded. He steered them to the European Championships for the first time and to within a play-off game of a first World Cup finals in 32 years. His record is strikingly similar to Martin O'Neill's but he's had a much weaker set of players at his disposal.

A management career conducted entirely in the League of Ireland was no barrier to Brian Kerr winning European under 16 and under 18 titles. Kerr was also a much better Irish senior manager than he got credit for, with just two defeats in 16 competitive matches. Liam Touhy, Kerr's precursor as underage miracle worker, was another League of Ireland product.

This season Kenny masterminded perhaps the most impressive domestic campaign of all-time. Dundalk have amassed more points and scored more goals than any team in League of Ireland history while compiling one of the best defensive records. They've won the FAI Cup conceding just one goal in the competition. Kenny has become just the third League of Ireland manager to win two doubles.

All this was achieved with a brand of subtle and positive football which duller spirits insist Irish players, even highly paid professionals, aren't capable of. Kenny's Dundalk rebuke those who sacrifice skill on the altar of pragmatism.

Dundalk's philosophy has remained the same but the personnel has changed. Only five of the team which started the 2014 final played yesterday, the talented quartet of Richie Towell, Andy Boyle, Daryl Horgan and David McMillan having moved cross channel. Kenny also lost Pat Hoban and Patrick McEleney to English clubs but both returned this season to play crucial roles.

Hoban's 29 goals, the joint highest total ever scored by an Irish striker in the League of Ireland, were perhaps the key factor in Dundalk wresting the title back from Cork. With the sides level and 16 minutes to play at the Aviva it was McEleney who swooped on Sean Gannon's cross to head the winner.

At Oxford United and Mansfield Town Hoban appeared unhappy and out of sorts. The richly talented McEleney was unable to make a success of things at Oldham Athletic. Yet once reunited with Kenny their form returned.

Rejuvenated

Michael Duffy, who came to Dundalk after being released by Celtic has been so thoroughly rejuvenated an Irish cap seems certain before long. Conversely Daryl Horgan who looked the most exciting League of Ireland prospect for many years under Kenny's tutelage floundered under less imaginative management at Preston North End.

It's not just the naturally gifted who benefit from the Kenny touch. Chris Shields and John Mountney were on a Dundalk team which only avoided relegation with a play-off win over Waterford. Dane Massey arrived at Oriel Park as a part-time electrician secured from struggling Bray Wanderers. Dundalk were Brian Gartland's fifth club in eight years.

Yet those players have become the backbone of perhaps the finest side the League of Ireland has ever seen. There was nothing inevitable about their success. It needed a great manager to turn them from artisans to aristocrats.

The League of Ireland has only seen one manager like Stephen Kenny. Jim McLaughlin won eight league titles, and four doubles, with four different clubs between 1976 and 1992. That the legendary Derry man never got a chance to operate at a higher level now seems like an awful missed opportunity.

Let's not make the same mistake with Stephen Kenny. This time let's honour the prophet in his own land.

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